The Plight of the Post-Doc

12.11.2010

11th hour pre-interview freak-out

My first faculty interview is this week, and frankly, I'm losing my junk a little bit. I'm super excited and I'm sure it will be fun, but I'm also terrified of doing something horribly gauche, insulting someone, or looking stupid in general. I've been poring over the very excellent advice on such matters from Physioprof, DrDrA, and Gerty-Z (and their commenters), but I still have a bunch questions. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Is it bad form to ask about the university city? I mean, everyone I'm talking to has chosen to live there, so would they be irked if I asked about quality of life/safety stuff?

2. I'm meeting the Dean. What does he want to talk about?

3. What do the students (grad) want to talk about?

4. Will people not take my relationship seriously because J and I are not married?

5. I'm doing a little reading about the research of each person on my itinerary, but will they expect me to be familiar with their work? How familiar?

6. What do I NEED to ask?

7. Anyone have any experience with those 5 hour energy shot thingies? Yay or Nay?

8. I seem to be coming down with a cold.

Hmm...there are probably more. I'll update as they occur to me. Any and all wisdom is much appreciated!

33 comments:

Zen said...

"Is it bad form to ask about the university city?"

No.

"I'm meeting the Dean. What does he want to talk about?"

Tricky to know. In many places, the Dean is the one who has authority over matters like start-up packages, and approval of the department's recommendation. So the Dean has to meet candidates. They may also want to talk about direction of the department, or innumerable other things.

"What do the students (grad) want to talk about?"

Probably general stuff about research. You'll probably be able to glean more from them than they will from you about what's going on in the department.

"Will people not take my relationship seriously because J and I are not married?"

None of their business.

At all.

Anyone who asks about your relationship is probably breaking a law. Seriously. Here, search committees are trained not to ask such questions, because they are irrelevant to your ability to perform the job.

I know this is a common topic of conversation for people meeting each other. And different people have different approaches to how to handle those questions. But you have to be aware that those kinds of questions about relationships, family plans, anything like that, is one of those things that they ought not to be asking about.

"I'm doing a little reading about the research of each person on my itinerary, but will they expect me to be familiar with their work? How familiar?"

They will not expect it, and will be pleasantly pleased at anything you know.

"What do I NEED to ask?"

You can't ask directly, but you need to figure out if it's a place where people fight each other.

"Anyone have any experience with those 5 hour energy shot thingies?"

I do not, but it seems to me that a good night's sleep is all you need.

GMP said...

1. Is it bad form to ask about the university city? I mean, everyone I'm talking to has chosen to live there, so would they be irked if I asked about quality of life/safety stuff?

Not at all. Ask people, in one-on-one interviews, how long they have been there, how they like the city, how are the housing prices etc. Informative and gives off the impression you are dead serious about jooining them.
Besides, in general, people like to talk about themselves and their lives.

2. I'm meeting the Dean. What does he want to talk about?

I remember that. He asked if I had questions (after a whole day of talking to people and generally having asked all I wanted). But it's really bad to not have questions, so I asked him about his view of the tenure process.

3. What do the students (grad) want to talk about?

Let them talk. Ask about the graduate program, what they liked and disliked, how long it takes them to graduate on average, if any of them switched advisors, are they happy with department support (financial and otherwise). How much do people collaborate between groups (that will tell you about department friendliness), is there a sense of department-wide student community (this often correlates with a harmonious department)...

4. Will people not take my relationship seriously because J and I are not married?

I know people are not supposed to ask you about it, but I was always asked (had a ring though so it was a clue). It's one of those things that it's worse to avoid than to answer. Just don't be on the defensive about that. If you two are serious, act as though you two are married for all intents and purposes and don't hesitate to negotiate as if he were your husband. He's your significant other, and that's all that matters. However, if you don't plan on getting married, ask about domestic partner benefits if there are any. Usually, if people asked about my family it was to tell me what a great place this was to raise a family.

5. I'm doing a little reading about the research of each person on my itinerary, but will they expect me to be familiar with their work? How familiar?

I did not receive the itinerary for my current place until the night before taking off so I couldn't cram much and it didn't matter. Learn about what key people in your area do, but for others I don't think you should worry too much if you don't really know what their specialty is. As always, let them talk: ask what they do, how large their group is, if they collaborate heavily within the university. Look for things you have in common and jump to point them out when they occur.

6. What do I NEED to ask?

Ask everyone about the tenure process, promotion and retention rates, intramural support for research, availability of TA-ships. I also asked if they consider the place to be harmonious/colleagial (they will say yes but you can read their body language); ask about how much they collaborate in the department, how much between departments, are there people sharing lab spaces (all these are indirect indicators of collegiality).

7. Anyone have any experience with those 5 hour energy shot thingies? Yay or Nay?

Nay. Coffee and adrenaline will suffice.

8. I seem to be coming down with a cold.

Not sure about that one. Chicken soup and tea and sleep, all that. Try Airbone over-the-counter tablets (dissolve in water), they worked miracles for me. I think adrenaline will tie you over until you come back (at which point you may crash).

Good luck, Dr. Becca!

Knock them dead!

CoR said...

First order of business: calm the fuck down. Easier said then done, but jogging, etc etc are in order here.

As to the questions:
1. Is it bad form to ask about the university city? I mean, everyone I'm talking to has chosen to live there, so would they be irked if I asked about quality of life/safety stuff?

You better as about the quality of life -- those are generally neutral and easy to ask filler questions. Have a set of 10 life-ish questions that you ask everyone when the convo gets stale.

2. I'm meeting the Dean. What does he want to talk about?
Meh, stupid stuff. We're so great rah rah rah. This is easy, just chat and be yourself.

3. What do the students (grad) want to talk about?
This will be very important. Ask them how well they are treated -- stipends, rotations, whatever you would have cared about as a student. They have a say usually in the hiring, so be cool here.

4. Will people not take my relationship seriously because J and I are not married?

Depends on if you will be negotiating for a job for him/her. Word to the wise -- until you have that offer, don't mention SO or anything other than, oh, they're flexible so its' not a deal breaker.

5. I'm doing a little reading about the research of each person on my itinerary, but will they expect me to be familiar with their work? How familiar?

Don't be overly familiar, but reading their stuff is good. Just listen, mention that you looked over this particular paper (when they bring it up) and let the convo happen naturally. You're just 2 scientists, having a chat about work.

6. What do I NEED to ask?

Lots. Write down questions in a notebook and ask from it. Search the chronicles on this one.

7. Anyone have any experience with those 5 hour energy shot thingies? Yay or Nay?

Nay. Absolutely nay.

8. I seem to be coming down with a cold.

Take some zinc, but not on an empty stomach.

Try not to be too nervous, just be happy and have fun!

scicurious said...

7. Anyone have any experience with those 5 hour energy shot thingies? Yay or Nay?

Don't do it. If it works it'll just make you shaky.

8. I seem to be coming down with a cold.

Soup, tea, sleep.

You will be nervous. Just don't tell anyone and they never have to know!! You'll do great.

namnezia said...

I was going to answer, but it seems like the commenters above covered everything. I would advise you NOT to take the energy drink (unless you do it regularly), you don't know how it will affect you. Just drink a shitload of fluids and get sleep, that'll help with energy and your cold. Bring a water bottle with you if your cold gets worse.

Other than that - kick some ass!

Zen said...

Oh yeah, one more thing:

Don't forget to smile.

:)

Pascale said...

Another general interview tip.

A secretary will escort you from place to place. Chat this person up. They know more about departmental issues and politics than the chair. As doorkeeper to the big boss, they can be helpful during subsequent interactions as well. Never ever annoy this person. They can be unhelpful.

Zen said...

@Pascale: I've never seen or heard of secretaries being responsible for handling job candidates during interviews. My experience has been that one faculty just drops the candidate off at the next place.

Dr Becca, PhD said...

Thanks for all the good advice and encouragement, everyone!

Re: the boyfriend, I guess I should have mentioned that he's not in science, so a couples-hire is not an issue. Is it ever common for institutions to help SOs find work outside of academia?

And Zen, don't worry. I'm very smiley!

Anonymous said...

Good luck! You're going to kick butt!

Ace said...

1. Is it bad form to ask about the university city? I mean, everyone I'm talking to has chosen to live there, so would they be irked if I asked about quality of life/safety stuff?

I did not interview anywhere I did not know real well. But i'd guess no. perhaps no need to say, but dont ask more q about town than uni or job. I'd do my homework myself on the interwebs about the place. More things that cna help: Pick up local weekly readers. Spend an extra day on your own (if possible).

2. I'm meeting the Dean. What does he want to talk about?

Never done this at interview. But I'd guess mission of the university, how they're dealing with economy... I talk to my dean about vacation destinatoins but may backfire...

3. What do the students (grad) want to talk about?

What you will teach, what kind of advisor you will be, what cool methods or tools you will bring. Ultimately what they think does not matter too much unless it's a very strong neg impression.

4. Will people not take my relationship seriously because J and I are not married?

Depends I suppose. Not where I am...

5. I'm doing a little reading about the research of each person on my itinerary, but will they expect me to be familiar with their work? How familiar?

If fields close to yours, I'd read their recent papers. In more distant fields a skim should be OK.

6. What do I NEED to ask?

7. Anyone have any experience with those 5 hour energy shot thingies? Yay or Nay?

I caffeinated a lot. I did use one of those at a conference but seemed to me not that different from coffee. I was also nicotine lozenging - you do NOT smoke at an interview in california. not tobacco anyway. (I quit, it was a brief relapse). Adrenaline and busy schedule kept me alert at interviews.

8. I seem to be coming down with a cold.

Adrenaline & dayquil.

GOOD LUCK! My biggest advice is, faculty interviews = dating. Whatever you've learned about dating can apply.

Ace said...

Finally I'm a big chattermouth (is that a word?) but the best thing is to let others talk and listen carefully. You want to get an idea of how functional and sane people in dept are. And watch for info in the nonverbal signs & in between lines as well. You can tell a lot about whether a department if you pay attention. That's perhaps the most important thing for you to get from the interview (other than the job offer!)

Zen said...

"Is it ever common for institutions to help SOs find work outside of academia?"

I've never seen that occur in any official capacity. I have seen a lot of faculty members and other members of university community who are very willing to point partners of new hires in promising directions for jobs.

Anonymous said...

Oh one more sorry, my husband is non-academic and the job assistance service for spouses at my university told my spouse he should try linked in and google. I am not kidding. That was their spousal assistance thing. Sucks and I don't think is all that fair... But anyway, get the job first, worry later.

Candid Engineer said...

W00t!!! Dr.B, you will be awesome. Any answer I could have given you is provided above. And my only other advice is to wear shoes that you can walk a mile or two in.

GertyZ said...

Becca,
Most people have covered your questions already. But really, I will echo CoR here: Calm the Fuck Down. You will do fine. I would avoid the 5h energy thing. Get as much rest as you can.

If you have specific concerns about where you are interviewing it is fully reasonable to bring it up in conversation. I found that often these things would come up.

Everyone will ask if you have questions. You should! You can ask more than one person that same question (for ex: you may want to hear multiple jr. faculty talk about how they feel about the mentoring they are getting). but don't ask everyone a stock list of ?'s.

Be yourself! You are awesome and you will do GREAT!

I had secretary escorts at some departments. They can be a great source of information, but be really nice. Don't worry about your SO. If someone asks (which they shouldn't), you can politely blot them off or mention that he is not a scientist (they may be fishing to determine if there is a 2-body issue). There are some places that help non-scientist SOs with job placement, but it is usually pretty informal.

Don't smile so much that you seem creepy :)

ScientistMother said...

I've never been in the interviewee or interviewer position. BUT, my PI is a Dean and has had to meet a shit ton of job candidates this semester. According to her, she encouraged candidates to ask whatever they wanted know about. She does not report back to the hiring committee so its all just between her & the candidate. She has encouraged the candidates to ask questions about spousal hiring opportunities, daycare, cost of living, leave policies etc. It is her job to sell the university so she knows what can and can not be offered.

Again, thats according to her. And we all know that she is AWESOME.

Anonymous said...

1. Is it bad form to ask about the university city? I mean, everyone I'm talking to has chosen to live there, so would they be irked if I asked about quality of life/safety stuff?

No, absolutely not, in fact it demonstrates that you are serious and curious about the place. But it is also good to be positive -- for example, if you know that the weather is bad, don't ask too many uncomfortable questions about the weather. Or couch them positively, if you do.

2. I'm meeting the Dean. What does he want to talk about?

In my interviews, they typically asked me for a very broad overview of what I do, and asked if I have any questions. It is hard to figure out what to say, but I asked them about the plans for my department -- as in, are they planning to recruit more, and things like that.

3. What do the students (grad) want to talk about?

In most of my interviews, most grad students were very sweet, and we chatted mostly about my research and the area. Usually students can be very shy, so it is good to goad them along by asking them questions about the area, or how much coursework they have, and things like that.

5. I'm doing a little reading about the research of each person on my itinerary, but will they expect me to be familiar with their work? How familiar?

Oh no, not at all. But its good to know a little bit about it, in case you see some opportunity for collaboration. Professors usually love to talk about their research, so you can always ask them about what they do.

6. What do I NEED to ask?

When I interviewed for faculty positions, my usual policy was to leave the tough questions for the second visit. But in general, even in the first visit, I thought it was helpful to ask about the following (in decreasing order of importance):

* the tenure process, and the fraction of people who make it.
* the students, how good they are. One way to politely ask about this is to ask about what the students do after graduation.
* the teaching load (for my field, computer science, it varies a lot from one university to another)

Christina said...

Just a random comment - it might be very difficult if not impossible to get a good night's sleep the night directly before. If you've gotten good sleep 2 days before and 3 days before, you'll be ok.

Female Computer Scientist said...

Congrats on landing an interview! I'm excited for you.

You've gotten some great advice, so the only general things I would add would be -

1) Don't sweat the small stuff. I think that was in one of the posts you linked to, or maybe I saw it elsewhere, but when applying for jobs you can be a perfectionist. But interviews are in real-time, so just roll with it. From your blog you seem like an enthusiastic person who enjoys her science, and I'm sure that will come through at the interview.

2) Try to read the local paper. Great source of stuff to talk about with your hosts. (Avoid politics and religion, of course). Transportation and construction are great neutral conversation fodder - new light rail project, additional runways at the airport, new bridge, etc. This is especially true for male scientists, I've found.

3) And I guess on that note, similar to what CPP said about making people feel smart during your job talk, during all your interactions you want to make people feel at ease during conversation. This takes practice, but having a pocket full of neutral conversation topics and easy questions for them to answer will put your future colleagues at ease. And it will put you at ease too, because it forces you to focus more on what they are saying instead of worrying over the things you say.

Good luck!

Ewan said...

1. Is it bad form to ask about the university city? I mean, everyone I'm talking to has chosen to live there, so would they be irked if I asked about quality of life/safety stuff?

Good grief no. As everyone else has said, this is a key component of your interviewing them. In my experience this is the *major* component of a second trip, which often happens after the offer, but it's also a significant component of the first.

It's likely that a large number of your friends are going to come from your new colleagues. You *need* to know about what they do for fun, what the sites of group activities are, what facilities are available for your favourite sport, and so on.

2. I'm meeting the Dean. What does he want to talk about?

Whether you'll fit the current goals/aspirations of the place. What your attitude is to preceived current problem X and how you would address it. To tell you about the budget constraints that might affect an eventual offer. To be a source of information for you. To sell the institution. To possibly give information on how different departments relate, facilities and resources available on an institutional basis. To address concerns you have on e.g. stipend levels or whatever that would need to be faced at a high level.

3. What do the students (grad) want to talk about?

What kind of advisor you'll be. What classes you might offer that they cannot currently take but would like to. You want *them* to talk about what the problems are in the program, how their support is, what would make their lives better… and with luck that'll allow them, if you sit and listen, to give you good information on psycho colleague F and problem relationship G-H.

4. Will people not take my relationship seriously because J and I are not married?

Where is the place? If in rural south/midwest, possibly. But unlikely even there, I think; and it's irrelevant to them (as others have noted): I found it impossible to avoid discussing relationships/SO/etc even though technically it's off-limits, but there was never anything other than folks trying to find out how they could be helpful.

5. I'm doing a little reading about the research of each person on my itinerary, but will they expect me to be familiar with their work? How familiar?

In contrast to other answers, I think so. I would, and I certainly was for every faculty member of every department at which I interviewed. I read one recent paper from each and was familiar with their current research area.

6. What do I NEED to ask?

Nothing AT ALL about money/salary/benefits. Worry about all of that after the offer. Ask about - again, as others have noted - shared resources, journal clubs, seminar series (i.e. evidence of a vibrant community), quality of grad students, challenges in *getting* the best gradstudents, etc. Ask what they would askif they were you. Ask why they made their most recent couple of hires. Ask about the level of support from the College/Dean/whatever. Ask about library facilities. Ask what space they have in mind for you - but don't be pushy; that can again wait until the ball's in your court.

GertyZ said...

reading Ewan's comment reminds me of a question that I broke out on several interviews: I asked what was the most challenging/surprising thing that they had to deal with in the process of moving and starting up a new lab. I got some interesting insight into how the dept. worked and also a heads-up for future challenges.

Dr. Koshary said...

I have no advice for you, Dr. B; if anything, I'm taking notes myself for my own edification! All I can do is wish you lots of luck, even though you clearly don't need luck. You just need to CTFD. :D

Oh, one bit of advice: don't take any weird energy things. Messing with your body chemistry right before these things is a terrible idea. What your body wants right now, especially given the cold you're fighting off, is healthy, natural rest, and medicinal foods like the chicken soup and herbal tea and so forth. Keep yourself healthy and rested, and you will shine energetically of your own accord.

Genomic Repairman said...

As a grad student just having had to meet w/ 6 candidates in a faculty search as far as #3 students will ask you about how you will run your lab, what your philosophy is (hands on/hands off, understanding of worklife balance or you are a tyrant), etc. Note me may have little power but our bosses usually ask us for feedback on these meetings so its definitely worthwhile to show interest in us. We generally get asked by candidates how recruitment goes, how collegial are the faculty, open door policies, etc.

As far as #6, ask about everything, quality of life, cost of living, resources, where do most of the techs come from, how easy is it to recruit postdocs and students.

Anonymous said...

I recently returned from academic interview #4. I was insanely nervous (to a level that I didn't previously know existed for me, really) before #1 too. But really, I can now say that they aren't nearly as bad as they seem. My advice:

-You set the tone really. If you smile a lot (when appropriate, of course), are easy to talk to (about science and non-science), and are enthusiastic, people seem to follow suit. Even some of the really grumpy or quiet ones.

-I would ask the grad students and post-docs about the location/safety/etc. along with the academic things listed above. I think that they are the most truthful because they usually aren't expecting to be there forever.

-Meetings with the dean(s, if deanlettes are also present) really have been more general for me. Make sure you figure out what his/her background is before talking about your research... often they are far enough removed that you should tone talk of your interests down to a "bigger picture" sort of level. Also have questions to ask of them (I like to use "What is your vision for the college/dept?" and "What would you like to see in this position?" and "What are the college's biggest challenges?"). If they are early in the itinerary, don't feel bad being vague (and telling them that it's early) about what needs you have, etc. These meetings have always been pleasant for me- just be your positive, successful self.

-I'm sure you know this, but be prepared for that one faculty member that will ask the attack-dog questions. Then try to kill them with kindness.

-Take energy bars, etc. for when you're in your hotel room. I never ate a whole meal with all of the talking, etc. And don't order something messy. I'd vote no on 5-hour energy. Really, coffee and adrenaline are enough. Say yes when anyone offers you water. And drink caffeine with every meal.

-Above all: Fake it until you believe yourself! I have found myself doing that numerous times... if you are outwardly confident, then no one else will see that inside you are freaking out. And (really, I'm not making this up), you will eventually feel a lot more confident from faking it.

Zen said...

Ewan said, "Nothing AT ALL about money/salary/benefits."

If you're interviewing at a state university, salary is a matter of public record. Why not ask?

Dr Becca, PhD said...

This post from yellowfish somehow didn't make it through the blogspot filters, but here it is in all its glory! Lots of good advice for those of you also on the market!

*********

I have only done this a few times so far, so I'm sure everyone else knows more, but here is my 2 cents on some of the questions:

1. I asked almost everyone about the city and they seemed to like it-you can always ask them which area of the city people tend to live, about public transportation, getting to work, etc. Its good filler, plus is useful info.

2. when I met with the Dean he talked about the tenure process and requirements. The chair directly asked me about what general types of startup I'd need on the first meeting.

4. I'm not married, and the people who did ask said things like "will you be moving with someone", so I think they do take it seriously (even though they shouldn't ask)

5. I printed out everyone's faculty web page so I could a picture and read a summary- then I used that to get targeted questions for each one (about equipment needs we have in common, subjects, etc). I only read whole papers for people who really closely overlapped with me. Although I went to one last week where in a few meetings I was clearly expected to know a lot about a topic I don't normally do, so I was very glad I'd read some papers on the airplane from those people.

6. I tried to get information about things I'd need to get my job done but in a way that didn't involve sounding like I was asking for things, just information getting -like, if there is shared equipment, how does it work, how much does it cost, how available is it. Same for human subjects or animal housing. Do people collaborate, is that encouraged. Also, its good to try to get a sense of how they see the position they're hiring for (like, if they are imagining something specific out of someone)- it gives you a chance to find out their needs and tell them how you can help fill them.

7/8- on stressful trips I usually bring my favorite tea, which I make by heating up water in the coffee maker, and drink that before I fall asleep. Then I take a benadril so I sleep at the appropriate time (it doesn't make me groggy in the a.m). Then I bring a yoga DVD and try to do even just 10 minutes in the morning, which makes me feel more like my normal self, and more awake.

Also, stash a small water bottle in your purse- no one will remember to let you stop and drink or go to the bathroom.

good luck!

Anonymous said...

When I was interviewing, the question both Dept. Head and the Dean asked was what were my start-up requirements. It really helped to have a piece of paper with me with my requirements written out and I gave a copy to each of them. They might not ask you, but if they do, be ready to answer the question! Also, for graduate student (i.e. graduate research assistant) salaries, it is better not to put a specific number down, since you do not know what that particular University pays - just list them as a one year salary.

As for the questions to ask to Dean, you can ask about what is his view of the Department you are interviewing at and he/she sees its future development.

yellowfish said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arlenna said...

I dunno where you're at right now Dr. B, but in case you're still looking here... I just second everything everyone else already said, plus this:

When I met with my current Dean at my interview here, I asked about where the indirect costs go and whether the departments get them back. He seemed interested to talk about that and pleasantly surprised that I even knew what they were.

Girlpostdoc said...

I've been a lurker for a while at your blog. But I want to tell you Wow! And Good luck I'm sure you will rock!

Dr Becca, PhD said...

Thanks everyone for all your advice, encouragement and support! I'm so lucky.

1. They were dying to talk to me about University City.
2. My chat with the Dean was actually one of the highlights of my visit--very enjoyable person.
3. The students were lovely, mostly wanting to know about what classes I'd teach and talk a little about my research.
4. Nobody seemed bothered about J really either way.
5. I read a little about each person on my itinerary (an abstract or two), and people seemed pretty impressed whenever I showed I knew even the most superficial thing about their research.
6. I asked lots about the collaborativeness of the department, about what support systems they have for new faculty, and their philosophies for graduate education. Very informative.
7. No 5-hr energy. Coffee w/ breakfast + adrenaline got me through to about 3, when I had a coffee with the Dean. Worked out perfectly!
8. Thankfully, the cold stayed at bay, even sans sudafed.

Yay!

NatC said...

So great to hear it was a good day! Congrats!!

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